Congo deal boosts hope for street kids
KINSHASA (AlertNet) - The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is not known for its social programmes but economic and political changes and fresh international support could improve conditions for the war-ravaged country's most hapless and neglected population -- its street children.
A decade after the DRC fell out of favour with international financial institutions, agreements with donors are expected to open doors for those most harmed by years of conflict and the disintegration of its society and infrastructure.
The government has secured a $43-million grant from the African Development Bank, as well as a $410-million credit and a $44-million grant from the World Bank to help finance a $1.7-billion multi-donor emergency rehabilitation and reconstruction program.
The DRC has also taken steps to settle external political differences. In July, President Joseph Kabila signed an internationally brokered peace deal with Rwanda's President Paul Kagame in Pretoria, South Africa.
The deal is a crucial step towards ending a war that has caused an estimated 3.5 million deaths in the eastern part of the country, according to AlertNet member the International Rescue Committee.
In addition, the DRC and Uganda have agreed to normalise relations and Uganda has pledged to withdraw its remaining troops from the DRC.
Uganda had backed the Congolese Liberation Movement, which signed a power-sharing agreement with Kabila in April.
Recognising the DRC's efforts to end conflict with its neighbours, President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe announced in August that he would withdraw the 3,000 Zimbabwean troops stationed in the DRC.
Zimbabwe, together with Angola and Namibia, sent in troops to help the Kinshasa government combat Rwandan- and Ugandan-backed rebels.
The effects of conflict and the country's socio-economic crisis have seriously damaged the well-being of the most vulnerable sections of the DRC's population.
BREAKDOWN OF GOVERNMENT
The breakdown of government, the lack of food, displacement of people and increased incidence of disease have hit Congolese minors particularly hard. Almost a third are malnourished, 10 percent acutely so.
Twenty percent do not reach the age of five. Of those that do, 40 percent are denied basic education.
Abandoned children -- AIDS orphans, runaways, victims of abusive or broken homes, children recruited and then deserted by one of the many armies or regional militias operating in the country -- have suffered most.
The number of abandoned children is difficult to gauge but it appears to be increasing.
The U.N. Children's Fund UNICEF estimated in 2000 that there were 50,000 abandoned children.
Last year, a report by the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimated that there were 70,000 "unaccompanied" children -- former child soldiers and street children -- roaming the DRC.
Thousands of them have ended up in cities. No one knows how many children are working and living on the streets of the capital, Kinshasa, but estimates range between 10,000 and 20,000 and the numbers appear to be growing.
In April, a report by the Displaced Children and Orphans Fund of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) identified a growing phenomenon that had become one of the main causes of child abandonment in the DRC: children accused of sorcery.
One USAID representative estimated that 60 percent of Kinshasa's street children had been accused of sorcery and kicked out of home by their own parents.
The phenomenon is unique to the DRC and is attributed to multiple pressures -- years of war, disease, economic and political insecurity, and plain old poverty.
CHILDREN REJECTED AS WITCHES
"The capacities of Congolese families and communities to assure basic care and protection for their children seem to be breaking down," said Javier Aguilar Molina, the urban programme coordinator for AlertNet member Save the Children in Kinshasa, explaining to AlertNet the increase in the number of children rejected as child witches.
The children who end up in Kinshasa sleep in cemeteries and come out during the day to work as porters, pickpockets and prostitutes.
The smallest among them sell cheap plastic bags and fresh water to make money to buy bread.
"It revolts me that we tolerate this," Rémy Mafu Sasa, the co-founder of Work for the Rehabilitation and Protection of Street Children (known by its French acronym, ORPER), told AlertNet.
"We're a Christian nation. Why don't we find it hypocritical that our children are living on the streets?"
When possible, ORPER sends children back to their parents. "The integration process is slow, and careful, but we pay for the child's food, medical care, and school for a year," Rémy said. "The home is always the best place for a child."
However, most children accused of sorcery are not welcome at home. All 28 girls, aged four to 12, living permanently in one of the ORPER schools have been accused of sorcery.
Rémy points to one of them, a tiny girl in a blue dress with a big smile. "Is she a sorcerer? It's ridiculous."
An orphan from the interior of the country, Gercku, aged 20, said he did not believe any of his peers practised sorcery.
"Each knows in his heart if he has the bad power," he told AlertNet. "But no one here has it. I know because we eat and sleep together, and it would be obvious if one of us were a sorcerer."
JEALOUS AND MEAN
Sorcerers, he says, are loners. "You can tell right away if someone is practising sorcery. They don't like to live with others, they don't clean themselves, and they're jealous and mean."
Showing off the tattoo of a green question mark on his forehead, a symbol of his freedom to do what he wants, Gercku insisted he followed no rules but the rules of the street.
Tall and fit, he does knuckle push-ups to stay in shape. He starts smoking pot at 7 a.m. He said he had no need for the law was not afraid of the police.
In spite of his tough exterior, he clearly cared about the other street children. A small 12-year old boy in shorts and rubber flip-flops, his toenails painted red, followed Gercku around, hanging on his every word.
Gercku and his "family" - a gang of about 10 children, boys and girls from all over, screened by a stocky, scruffy leader named Pati - live in the Sayo-Kasavubu cemetery, one of the cemeteries in Kinshasa that has passed into disuse, at least as a repository for the dead.
The headstones are gone, broken up and sold as rubble, and the graves have been turned into small plots of rubbish-strewn farmland.
Nevertheless, the street children call Sayo-Kasavubu the "desert," because, Gercku explained, "there's really nothing here."
They call their headquarters in the desert "the Pentagon." They sleep shoulder-to-shoulder in the rusty skeletons of two cars covered in blankets and banners, which they appropriate after soccer matches, festivals, and other public events.
Condom boxes litter the ground around "the Pentagon," mashed into the dirt, mixed with pieces of plastic and cigarette butts. Fourteen-year-old Beneditezo sleeps with men every day, for the equivalent of less than a dollar. Suké, 11, whose parents live in the interior of the country, also works as a prostitute.
The girls said they bought their own condoms, but some men refused use them.
IGNORED BY THE GOVERNMENT
For the most part, Gercku's gang and other street children are ignored by Kinshasa's residents and by the government.
"This must be the only country in the world where children are not protected from their own parents," said ORPER's Rémy.
"Other countries have ministers devoted to working on children's issues. Not here. It's beyond the government's control."
Rather than focus on preventive measures that would keep children off the streets in the first place, the government had tried to manage the growing numbers of street children through repressive means, such as round-ups. Earlier this month, the interior minister called on street children to turn themselves in to authorities.
NGOs argue that round-ups are not the answer. "Street children would be forced to join institutions that are not prepared to feed so many children and provide medical care and security," said Molina of Save the Children, which is working with UNICEF to find alternative solutions for the local authorities.
In the past year the street children, though illiterate and isolated, have become more visible, as well as socially and politically active. After hearing about the suicide-hijackings in the United States on September 11 last year, Gercku and others marched against terrorism.
They have also grown more aggressive. They often vandalise personal property that belongs to people they don't like.
Last summer, after a street child was caught stealing was shot and killed by police, a horde of friends set fire to a police station and injured the chief.
The mayor of Kinshasa responded by arresting about 80 children, who were thrown back on the street days later, but not before rumours -- all untrue -- of a bloodbath at the police station had hit the streets.
LOST RESPECT FOR LIFE
What is true is that street children have lost respect for human life. In mid-July, a crowd of voyeurs gathered at the corner of D'Alélé and Yongo avenues, in Kinshasa's Kasavubu district, to stare at the corpse of a newborn, lying in the mud and garbage, its umbilical cord still attached.
The night before, a 14 year-old girl had given birth to the baby and abandoned it in the ditch.
The incident took place near the Sayo-Kasavubu cemetery, where Gercku's gang and 100 other street children sleep.
According to a local journalist, street children often leave their babies to die in the streets, and there is no pressure within their communities not to do so: "Girls go back to the street children and no one ever asks 'Where's your baby?'"
NGOs that work with street children are quick to point out that focusing on crime and aggression could lead to further discrimination against vulnerable minors. "We have to take into account the fact that children are forced to use survival strategies," said Molina.
Nevertheless, many Kinshasans fear that street children growing up with no education or skills will have little choice but to band together in gangs of professional thieves -- hungry for food and trouble.
The older they become, the harder it is to reintegrate them into society. ORPER does not even attempt to rehabilitate children over the age of 12. "It's too hard for them to readjust," said Rémy.
Steps toward economic and political stabilisation have failed to allay concerns that underlying problems, especially insecurity and poverty, will not be addressed before the current generation of street children comes of age and becomes a destabilising force itself.
"They're a menace now," an American diplomat said. "And they'll just get worse."
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